It's time for me to go, and I want to say good-bye to Robert, but he's talking to Apollinaire. I catch his eye, and wave, and he excuses himself and comes over.
"You're leaving?" he says.
He walks me out the door and down the path to the parking lot. For the moment the rain has stopped, though the sky hasn't cleared and the trees are full of water.
"This is my car," I say. It's an old VW Rabbit with so many scratches and nicks it looks like it's been in a fight.
He stands at the passenger door; I'm at the driver's. He seems to be waiting for something, and I say, "I'd like to invite you in, but it's a mess."
The front seats are covered with old wet towels because the convertible top leaks, and the floor is littered with fast-food wrappers from the last dozen road trips I've taken. I tell him that the garbage and rags discourage thieves. "If the trash doesn't deter them, there's the wet poodle smell."
"You have a poodle?" he says.
"A standard," I say. "Jezebel."
He grew up with standard poodles and loves them, and what color is mine? I think, I have found the only straight man in the world who loves poodles.
He tells me he has a cat.
"A cat?" I say. "How can you do that?"
"I love her," he says. "But we both know she's just a place holder."
Then there's a rush of drops--at first I think it's from the trees, but it's real rain, total rain, and Robert pulls his jacket up over his head and runs over to my side, kisses my cheek and gallops back to the mansion, presumably into Apollinaire's widespread wings.
I sit on the wet rags, and try not to feel like a wet rag myself.
Then he's knocking on my window. I roll it down. He asks, "Can I call you?" and I answer "Sure" so fast that my voice overlaps the rest of his sentence "about the Dragonia?"
"Sure," I say again, pretending I didn't say it the first time. "I'm in the phone book," I say. "Rosenal."
"Rose'n'Al, Rose'n'Al, Rose'n'Al," he says fast, and disappears.
He doesn't call on Sunday.
Monday, between writing lines like, "Call now for your free gift," and "There's never been a better time to call," I call home to check my answering machine. I feel elated dialing, despondent when I hear the inhuman voice say, "No new messages." Then I call again.
Donna calls to ask about the wedding, and I tell her about Robert. It feels good just to say his name, like he's still a clear and present danger. Then I have to say, "But he hasn't called."
She says, "Why don't you call him?"
I don't answer.
My devoted friend says, "I don't think you could have felt so strongly if he didn't feel the same way about you."
I say, "How do you feel about Jeremy Irons?"
When I get home, the machine's red light is blinking. I say, "Please be Robert." It is. His voice is low and shy, saying he's on his way out and will call back.
I play the message again and watch Jezebel's face. "What do you think?" I ask her.
She looks back at me: I think it's time for my walk.
We go around the block and are almost home when we run into a dog we haven't met before, a beautiful weimaraner. Jezebel goes right up to him and licks his mouth. The weimaraner jumps back. "He's a little skittish," his owner says, led away by Herr Handsome.
"I can't believe you just walked up and kissed him," I say to Jezebel, "without even sniffing his butt first."
I make a salad. I try to start another Edith Wharton novel, but I can't concentrate in the silence of the phone not ringing.
Then I think, What if he does call? I'll just mess it up. The only relationships I haven't wrecked right away were the ones that wrecked me later.
I don't admit to myself what I'm doing when I put my bike helmet on and ride over to the Barnes & Noble a few blocks away. I pretend that maybe I'm just getting another Edith Wharton novel.
But I bypass Fiction and find Self-Help. I think, Self-Help?--if I could help myself I wouldn't be here.
There are stacks and stacks of How to Meet and Marry Mr. Rights, the terrible book Donna told me about, terrible because it works. I take my copy up to the counter, as furtively as if it were a girdle or vibrator.
There isn't a photograph of the authors, Faith Kurtz-Abromowitz and Bonnie Merrill, but after only a few pages, I see them perfectly. Faith is a reserved blown-dry blonde; Bonnie, a girly-girl, a giggler with deep dimples. I have known them my entire life: in gym class, playing volleyball, they were the ones clapping their hands and shouting, "Side out and rotate--our team is really great!" In college, Bonnie was my Secret Santa. In personnel offices, when I joked about my application phobia, Faith was the one who said, "Just do the best you can."
Now I am turning to them for guidance.
Still, they promise that if you follow their advice, "You will marry the man of your dreams!" And I read on.
Their premise is that men are natural predators, and the more difficult the hunt the more they prize their prey. In other words, the last thing you want to do is tap a hunter on the shoulder and ask him to shoot you.
Half of me has to make fun of the book, if only because I've broken all of their rules--"vows," they call them; the other half is relieved that I haven't broken any with Robert yet.
I read the book from bold blurb to bold blurb until I get to Don't be funny!
I think, Don't be funny?
"Right," I hear smooth, stoical Faith say. "Funny is the opposite of sexy."
"But I'm attracted to funny men," I say.
Bouncy Bonnie says, "We're not talking about who you're attracted to, silly! Go out with clowns and comedians if you want to! Laugh your head off! Just don't make any jokes yourself!"
"Men like femininity," Faith says, crossing her legs. "Humor isn't feminine."
"Think of Roseanne!" Bonnie says.
"Or those fat, knee-slapping girls from Hee Haw," Faith adds dryly.
"What about Marilyn Monroe?" I say. "She was a great comic actress."
"That's probably not why there's a new lingerie line named after her," Faith says.
I say, "But Robert likes me because I am funny."
"You don't know why he likes you," Faith says.
Bonnie says, "You looked terrific in that sheath!"
I hate this book. I don't want to believe it. I try to think what I do know about men. What comes to mind is an account executive at work saying, "Ninety-nine percent of men fantasize about having sex with two women at once."
My mother hardly ever gave me advice about men, and I only remember asking her once, in fifth grade. I'd dispatched a friend to find out if the boy I liked liked me. "Bad news--" my friend reported, "he hates you."
My mother kept saying, "What's wrong, Puss?" I couldn't tell her. Finally, I asked how you got a boy you liked to like you back. She said, "Just be yourself," which seemed like no advice at all, even then. At a loss, my poor mother suggested I jump on my bike and ride around the block to put roses in my cheeks.
My brother calls inviting me to a benefit for a theater company Friday night--his girlfriend, Liz, knows the director. "It's a singles event," Henry says.
"Singles?" I say. I think of individually wrapped American cheese slices.
"There's some theme," he says.
"Desperation?" I suggest.
He holds the phone and asks Liz what the theme is.
I hear her say, "It's a square dance."
"A square dance?" he says, in a you're-kidding tone.
"Don't say it like that," she says. "Let me talk to her." She gets on the phone. "Jane?" she says.
"It sounds dorky," Liz says, "but I went last year and it was really fun!"
It occurs to me that I might not like fun.
"You want to meet men," Faith says.
Bonnie says, "Say yes to everything you're invited to!"
"What else were you going to do Friday night?" Faith says calmly. "I think we're talking about Edith Wharton--am I right?"
I'm getting the address of the party when my call waiting beeps. It's Robert. "Hi," I say, flustered. "I'm on another call."
Faith says, "Say you'll call him back."
But I'm confused--isn't this my fish on the line?
"Not yet," Faith says. "He's just a nibble."
I ask Robert if I can call him back.
He says that he's at a pay phone.
"So what?" Bonnie says. "It's a quarter!"
But I say, "Hold on a sec," to Robert and tell Liz I'll see her at the hoedown.
Robert and I talk about how much fun the wedding was. I'm distracted, trying to follow the vows or at least not to break any, but the only ones that come to mind are: Don't say "I love you" first! Wear your hair long! Don't bring up marriage!
He tells me he's in the Village, he's been looking at apartments, and asks if I want to meet for coffee.
Bonnie says, "Don't accept a date less than four days in advance!"
I stall, asking him how the apartments were, until the recorded voice of an operator comes on the line, requesting another nickel or our call will be terminated.
He adds a nickel. "Terminated sounds so permanent," he says. "So final."
I think, Not if you believe in the aftercall. But Faith says, "No jokes."
"So," he says, "do you want to get some coffee?"
I make myself say, "I can't."
"Good girl," Faith says.
"Oh," he says. Pause. Then he asks if I want to have dinner Friday.
"You have plans." Faith says, "Say it."
"I can't Friday," I say.
He goes right by it and asks about Saturday.
"Fine," Faith says.
"Okay," I say to Robert.
Then the operator comes on again, asking for another nickel.
He says, "Listen to her pretending that she didn't interrupt us before."
I am fizzy with elation.
After therapy, I'm on the elevator when Bonnie says, "That was great!"
"What?" I say.
"You kept the vow Don't tell your therapist about the guide."
"Because I want her to think I'm improving," I say. "I'm hoping that one day she'll say I'm all better and don't need to come back anymore."
"And one day your dry cleaner will recommend hand washing," Faith says, brushing her hair.
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